The United States military secretly has sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the armed forces there handle a flood of Syrian refugees, prepare for the possibility that Syria will lose control of its chemical weapons and be positioned should the turmoil in Syria spread, according to a report in The New York Times.
The task force, which has been led by a senior American officer, is based at a Jordanian military training center built into an old rock quarry north of Amman, the Times reported Wednesday, and is focused on helping Jordanians handle the estimated 180,000 refugees who have crossed the border and are severely straining resources.
American officials told the Times that the mission also includes drawing up plans to try to insulate Jordan, an important American ally in the region, from the upheaval.
The officials are reported as saying that establishing a buffer zone between Syria and Jordan — which would be enforced by Jordanian forces on the Syrian side of the border and supported politically and perhaps logistically by the United States — had been discussed, but is only a contingency plan.
The Obama administration has declined to intervene in the Syrian conflict beyond providing communications equipment and other nonlethal assistance to the rebels opposing the government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to the report. But the outpost near Amman could play a broader role should American policy change.
As the crisis has deepened, there has been mounting concern in Washington that the violence could spread through the region. Over the past week, Syria and Turkey have exchanged artillery and mortar fire across Syria’s northern border, which has been a crossing point for rebel fighters; on Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the alliance would come to Turkey’s defense if requested. Syria is said to have lost control of border crossings to Lebanon and Iraq as well, the Times noted.
Jordan, which was one of the first Arab countries to call for Assad’s resignation, has also seen skirmishes between the Syrian military and Jordanians guarding the country’s northern border, where many families have ties to Syria.
The American mission in Jordan quietly began this summer. In May, the United States organized a major training exercise, which was dubbed Eager Lion. About 12,000 troops from 19 countries, including special forces troops, participated.
When it ended, the small American contingent stayed on and the task force was established at a training center north of Amman. It includes communications specialists, logistics experts, planners, trainers and headquarters staff members, American officials told the Times.
Members of the American task force are working with the Jordanian military on logistics — figuring out how to deploy food, water and latrines to the border, for example, and training the Jordanian military to handle the refugees, the Times wrote. A month ago, as many as 3,000 a day were coming over the border. But as the Syrian army has consolidated its position in southern Syria, the number of refugees has declined to several hundred a day.